Saturday, March 3, 2012

How many folks in the U.S. are freaked out about flying?

The answer is millions. Earlier this week I found an article in the Chicago Tribune about Calming the Fear of Flying, which discussed a recent book on Flying Fear Free. The article reported that:

“Fear of flying is the second most common phobia in the United States, according to author Sandra M. Pollino, with public speaking being first.”

On her Facebook page on January 13th Sandra Pollino further claimed that:

“The National Institute of Mental Health(NIMH) places fear of flying (acrophobia) second only to fear of public speaking." AND 

 “More than twenty-five million Americans fear flying.”

I had good reasons to be suspicious of her claim that fear of flying came in second to fear of public speaking. However, I decided to first look on some expert web sites about fear of flying and find what survey statistics they had. (Their main focus is on helping people get over that fear).

First I looked at Dr. Todd Curtis’s, and found a web page with a section on How Many People Are Afraid of Flying on that said:

“The airline industry is clearly aware of the fear of flying, and how it affects the traveling public. Research is somewhat sparse, with one of the most important studies on fear of flying dates back to 1980, when two Boeing researchers found that 18.1% adults in the U.S. was afraid to fly, and that another 12.6% of adults experienced anxiety when they fly. In short, one of three adult Americans were afraid to fly.”

Second, I looked at Tom Bunn and Lisa Hauphner’s SOAR web site and found a similar, slightly more detailed page including information about the Boeing Report on the Fear of Flying.

Third, I found a web page (of unknown age) from Dr. Jonathan Bricker, a Seattle therapist, who claimed that:

“Moreover, there has not ever been a scientific study that has provided a fully representative sample (of) the general population to give us accurate estimates of fear of flying.”

Back in July 2011 I blogged about Putting the Fear Puzzle Pieces Together. In that post I discussed two articles from 1998 that had analyzed results from the National Comorbidity Survey (NCS, of 8098 people) on specific fears (like fear of flying), and social fears (like the fear of public speaking).

The bar chart shown above (click on it to enlarge) combines those results. Fear of public speaking is first (30.2%), but fear of flying isn’t second - it is seventh (13.2%).

As shown above, the article on specific fears includes data on phobias too. A phobia is different from a plain fear - it is an intense, unreasonable fear - a fear with a capital F. Only 3.5% have a phobia about flying (about a quarter the percent having just a fear).

Last August I blogged about using data from the screening questions on specific fears from the more recent National Comorbidity Survey - Replication (NCS-R). The bar chart shown above reveals that public speaking (or speaking in class) is the top fear (38.5%), and flying is eighth (17.6%). That percentage for flying isn’t much higher than the 13.2% previously reported in the NCS. Assuming a U.S. population of about 310 million, 17.6% converts to about 55 million people with a fear of flying.

The two green bars for public speaking and speaking in class show Ruscio et al’s percentages from a more detailed analysis using more questions that separated those two social fears.

I looked around and eventually found a review article about specific phobia that referenced another two recent large surveys.

The bar chart shown above presents data from a very large survey on specific phobias by Stinson et al. published in 2007. Over 43,000 people were interviewed face to face, and with the response rate of 81% the final sample was 34,900 people. The full text is here. Phobia of flying was fourth, at 2.9%, and slightly lower than the 3.5% reported earlier by Curtis et al. Assuming a U.S. population of about 310 million, 2.9% converts to about 9 million people with a phobia of flying.

Over in Europe in 2008, M.F. L.A. Depla et al published an article on Specific Fears and Phobias in the General Population: Results from the Netherlands Mental Health Survey and Incidence Study) in Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology, V43 P200. You can read an abstract here.

The bar chart shown above presents their results for both specific fears and specific phobias. 6.9% had a fear of flying, which is significantly lower than the United States surveys. 2.5% had a phobia of flying - not much lower than those surveys in the United States.

Where did Sandra M. Pollino get that comparison of two fears? I looked up magazine databases via my public library and found an October 18, 1993 article in Fortune magazine by Nancy J. Perry on How to Conquer Fear of Flying which stated that:

“Aviaphobia is estimated by experts to be the second most prevalent phobia, behind the fear of public speaking.”

What can we learn about research from looking for this topic? First, there may be newer and better data than what is being quoted by the “experts.” Second, so much information is on Google that knowing the insider jargon term “specific phobia” and looking for surveys was critical for narrowing the search. Without using them, we just would get a lot of references to the 1973 Erica Jong novel, Fear of Flying.

The image of a crashed Boeing 747 in Brussels is from Wikimedia Commons.

1 comment:

Maggie Knapp said...

I really appreciate your thoughtful analysis of the "fear of public speaking" stats. Did you know that Susan Cain's new book "Quiet" (which I liked, as a whole) reanimates the public speaking/fear of death statistic on p. 107. "...public speaking is the number-one fear in America, far more common than the fear of death." In the endnotes for that page, she references a study by Cunningham, Lefkoe and Sechrest: Eliminating Fears: An Interventiona that Permanently Eliminates the Fear of Public Speaking". Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 13 (2006), 59-81.

Maggie K.
MS/US Library
Trinity Valley School